Politics and Religion: Politics and Christianity

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Although the relation of Christians to their governing political power usually follows Jesus's teaching, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," interpretations of this command vary with different historical circumstances and traditions. In Jesus's time, the relation of the Jews to their Roman conquerors was different from the relation a thousand years later of Christians to Christian emperors. Another thousand years later the relationship has become, for the most part and particularly in democracies, one of separation of church and state.

The Pre-Constantinian Church

The first followers of Jesus were Jews gathered in Jerusalem at the time of his crucifixion, death, andaccording to the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. But the belief that Jesus was the long-awaited and now risen Messiah resulted in the expulsion of his followers from Jewish synagogues. As a conquered people under the rule of the Roman Empire, Jews nevertheless enjoyed a special exemption from the otherwise required worship of Roman gods. Once the followers of Jesus gained a distinct identity, they were no longer protected from Roman persecution. Though sporadically persecuted from the time of Emperor Nero (r. 54 ce68 ce) until Emperor Constantine (r. 312337) legitimized Christianity in 313, Christians generally were good citizens who disobeyed only in the matter of religion.

From Constantine to the Reformation

When Christianity became the favored religion of the empire, Christians affirmed one God but disputed the way in which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was also divine. Constantine called a council of Christian bishops and theologians that met in Nicaea in 325 and condemned one interpretation, known as Arianism. The right of the emperor to call councils and command bishops continued in the Byzantine Empire, established in 330 when Constantine moved from Rome to Byzantium, an ancient city on the Bosporus, which he rebuilt and renamed Constantinople. Constantine's successors ruled over this eastern empire, while the western half of the empire languished under poor political leadership. Barbarians northeast of Byzantium swept into eastern and then western Europe, destroying towns and cities. In these devastated lands, bishops were often the only effective authorities. In northern Gaul, Clovis, the ruler of the Franks, converted to Christianity in 496 ce. The Franks became fierce defenders of their Christian faith and lands. Another Frank, Charles the Hammer (Charles Martel, c. 688741), halted the advance of Islam into Europe by defeating the Muslim army at Poitiers in 732. His grandson was Charles the Great (Charlemagne), who ruled from 768 to 814 and by 800 had conquered most of central Europe, from the Pyrenees to the Rhine River.

Charlemagne imposed as uniform a Christianity as his fine organizational skills could manage. He brought the scholar Alcuin (c. 735804) from Britain to Gaul and in other ways fostered learning, leading to what is known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Under Charlemagne monasteries adopted the Benedictine Rule and became repositories of learning; monks copied manuscripts, sometimes in the new, flowing "Carolingian minuscule." When rebellion threatened Pope Leo III, he appealed to Charlemagne, who thenceforth became the papal champion. On Christmas Day, 800, Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans. Latin Christianity now had a strong emperor whose very success emphasized a latent problem: the relation of the pope to the emperor.

As a Christian Charlemagne was subject to the pope, but Leo depended upon Charlemagne for military protection. So who was the more powerful, the pope who crowned Charlemagne or the emperor whose army stood at the gates of Rome during the coronation? The tug-of-war between pope and emperor continued until the Reformation of the sixteenth century split Western Christianity and established a new political-religious dynamic. A few salient encounters will clarify the nature of the continuing conflict. After Pope Gregory VII (r. 10731085) stripped the secular power of the right to invest bishops with the insignia of their pastoral office, Emperor Henry IV summoned a synod of bishops, who in 1075 voted to depose Gregory. Gregory retaliated by excommunicating Henry. Since excommunication dissolved the feudal bond between rulers and their subjects, Henry repented, kneeling in the snow outside the papal residence at Canossa. Gregory thus established a principle of papal freedom from secular control. In 1208 Pope Innocent III placed England under interdict and the next year excommunicated its king. The consequent weakening of King John made room for the revolt of the barons, who managed to force John to sign the Magna Carta, "The Great Charter of English liberty granted (under considerable duress) by King John at Runnymede on June 15, 1215." The rights obtained in Magna Carta constituted a significant legal step toward democracy.

In 1303 Philip IV of France captured Pope Boniface VIII, thereby reversing the power dynamic between sovereign secular and ecclesiastic authority. Philip moved the papacy to Avignon, a move that eventually led to schism (13781417) and scandal, as three popes claimed to be St. Peter's successors. The Council of Constance (14141418) resolved the schism, but only through the action of "conciliarists," a group of clergy and philosophers who wanted to reform the church by decentralizing it and convening councils every five years. They argued that the church should return to the methods of the first four centuries, when the people elected their bishops. The pope's role, they argued, should be that of an executive secretary carrying out the decisions of a representative council consisting not only of clergy but of laymen and, according to Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham, of laywomen as wella remarkable idea in a time of male dominance. Although Pope Eugene IV (r. 14311447) succeeded in defeating conciliarism, the conciliarists had brought the West another step toward democracy.

At the council, Eugene disappointed a delegation from the Byzantine emperor, John VIII Palaeologus (r. 14251448), who sought military aid against the Turks. From Constantine on, the Byzantine emperor or empress ruled the Eastern church, whose patriarchs never gained the kind of power exercised by the Roman popes. When Constantinople, the "second Rome," fell to the Turks in 1453, the Russian Orthodox church assumed leadership of Eastern Christianity, and its main seat in Moscow became the "third Rome." Similar liturgies and hierarchies, barely changed since the days of Constantine, united the Orthodox churches. Relative to the Latin church of the West, state-control Orthodox churches offered fewer opportunities for rebellion by nobles, clergy, or philosophers. The lands of Eastern Christianity thus had no counterparts to the Magna Carta or the conciliarist movement, and they experienced nothing like the splintering the Western church underwent in the sixteenth-century.

From the Reformation to the Enlightenment

Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation in 1517, insisting on the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the right of individual Christians to read the Bible in their own languages and to interpret its meaning themselves. This move toward individualism was another step toward the doctrines of human rights that developed during the subsequent two centuries. Luther survived papal condemnation and the ire of Emperor Charles V (r. 15191556) only because he was protected by his own suzerain, Frederick the Wise, ruler of Saxony from 1486 to 1525 and one of the Holy Roman Empire's seven electors. The empire, consisting mainly of German-speaking lands, comprised myriad territories whose lords, while jealous of their power in their own lands, were sworn in fealty to the emperor. By 1529 three of the seven electors had become "Lutherans," and that year at the Diet of Speyer they protested for their right to chose preachers in their own districts (hence the term "Protestant"). Charles V, fighting the Turks at Vienna, needed the support of all his lords and so yielded to their demands. Because Protestant preachers required the protection of their lords, the latter exercised considerable power over the churches in their terri-tories.

In Zurich, one of the cantons of the Swiss confederation, Huldrych Zwingli in 1518 began another phase of the Reformation. By 1525 the town's council had accepted Zwingli's reforms, voting against Catholic objections. Other republics and "free cities" within the empire that enjoyed the chartered right to elect their own municipal governments followed suit. In a sense, the Reformation's successthrough the actions of locally elected magistrates and an elected emperorstemmed from political systems developed in the Middle Ages; the liberties guaranteed by medieval town charters took on new relevance in the context of religious reform and thus made possible another step toward democracy in the West.

Luther's principle of private interpretation of the Scriptures was carried further by the so-called Anabaptists, or "rebaptizers." Originating in Zurich in 1520, the sect had spread to the empire by 1525. An imperial edict read at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 condemned them on the grounds that "no man, having once been baptized according to Christian order (as an infant), shall let himself be baptized again or for the second time." With the activities of the "rebaptizers" declared "forbidden on pain of death," Protestants and Catholics alike made martyrs of Anabaptists well into the next century.

Politics played a major part in England's revolt against the papacy, which occurred through a series of legislative acts by Parliament. The new laws paved the way for King Henry VIII (r. 15091547) to divorce Catherine of Aragon (14851536), who had borne him a daughter, Mary Tudor (15161558), but no sons. In 1531 Parliament declared Henry to be "their only and supreme lord and, as far as the law of Christ allows, even supreme head." After his divorce from Catherine and from Rome, Henry married the pregnant Anne Boleyn (15071536) in 1533. That same year, Anne bore a daughter, later Elizabeth I (r. 15581603), one of England's greatest sovereigns. After the miscarriage of a son, Anne fell from favor and was beheaded in 1536. In 1537 Henry married Jane Seymour, who five years later gave him his long-desired son and heir, Edward VI (r. 15471553).

Edward succeeded his father under the regency of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Through Somerset and Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury and author of The Book of Common Prayer (1549), England became Protestant in theology and liturgy. In 1553 Edward died and Mary Tudor, devoutly Roman Catholic, inherited England's throne. Through Parliament she reversed much of the Edwardian legislation. She had Cranmer executed for treason, while other Protestant leaders fled abroad to form a powerful group of "Marian exiles," who returned when Mary's half-sister Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1558. England's people suffered from the changing religious legislation, which led to bitter divisions between Protestants and Catholics. In 1559 Parliament passed a new Act of Supremacy that required an oath affirming Elizabeth as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. In the same year, the Act of Uniformity introduced a system of penalties ranging from fines for not attending Sunday services as mandated by the restored Book of Common Prayer to death for attending a Catholic Mass. This "Elizabethan Settlement" was reached only after bitter debates between Henrician Anglicans and Edwardian Protestants, many of whom had learned their theology in the Reformed states of Zurich and Geneva. The latter's discontent over the retention of the office of bishop and the sanctioning of elaborate liturgical practices led to rebellion in the next century.

Among the Marian exiles who took refuge in Geneva during the reign of Mary Tudor was the Reformed preacher John Knox (c. 15141572). Upon his return to Scotland, Knox persuaded its great barons and other nobles to sign the First Covenant in 1557. In 1560 the Scottish Parliament abolished the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, adopted a Reformed confession of faith, and organized the Scottish church along Presbyterian lines. In 1707 the Treaty of Union required the English sovereign to swear to protect the Church of Scotland, but merely as a member, not as its Supreme Governor. Church and state in Scotland continue to be thus divided; each year the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland chooses its own head, the Mod-erator.

In the tiny republic of Geneva, which granted refuge to English Protestants fleeing Mary Tudor's Catholic regime, Guillaume Farel (14891565) began the Reformation in 1532. In 1536 Geneva's General Council swore "to live according to the Word of God." Two months later Farel prevailed upon a young Frenchman, John Calvin (15091564), to assist him. Earlier that year Calvin had published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the definitive Latin edition of which appeared in 1559, followed by a French edition in 1560. The work presented a powerful, consistent theology that, together with the Genevan Confession of Faith and the articles of church organization, both introduced in 1537, formed the pillars of the Genevan Reformation. Calvin's Geneva was ruled by a Council of Sixty and a Council of Two Hundred. These councils annually elected twelve lay elders to serve in the Consistory along with five pastors, whose position was more or less permanent. The Consistory therefore represented both state and church in matters of church discipline. While it could neither judge nor punish civil offenses, it could admonish or, in the worst cases, excommunicate offenders. Genevan citizens had to sign the Genevan Confession of Faith, which created a marriage of church and state emulated by the settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630.

From the Reformation to the Enlightenment

From the Reformation on, the developing nations of Western Europe had official state churches, a situation that led to bloody and bitter religious wars. Rulers determined the religion of their subjects, who had to convert or move to another territory to avoid dire consequences, including death. Territorial wars were ipso facto religious warsCatholics fought Lutherans and Calvinists, Lutherans and Calvinists fought each other, and all three persecuted Anabaptists. To bolster armies, warring factions hired mercenaries, sometimes including Muslim Turks. The intermittent but frequent bloody chaos of the Thirty Years' War (begun in 1618) ended only with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

In the meantime, Christians living under Muslim rule in southern Spain, southern Italy, and along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean enjoyed religious liberty; even though their faith relegated them to second-class citizenship, they certainly fared much better than Muslims and Jews under Christian rule. When Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the Moors in the battle of the Alhambra in January 1492, they declared all Spain a Christian country. Muslims and Jews had either to convert to Christianity or to leave Spain. Some Jews signed onto the ships of Christopher Columbus, who set sail in August 1492. Columbus welcomed Jewish crew-members, thinking that he might meet one of the lost tribes of Israel during his voyage and thus require Hebrew speakers.

In the Americas, native populations learned painfully what it was to be "discovered" by white Europeans. Spanish conquistadors killed and enslaved Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas, contrary to orders of both the Spanish king and the Holy Roman Emperor. But the conquistadors were a law unto themselves; distance made royal and imperial mandates from Europe ineffective. Missionaries either colluded with the conquistadors or fought for the rights of the natives. Even as Christian converts, the natives of Mexico and Central and South America had few rights, although the Spaniards allowed intermarriage and did not confine natives to reservations.

Natives of North America fared worse. Like those of Central and South America, they made friendly overtures and agreed to treaties, which the colonists then broke. The governments of the United States and Canada forced natives from their homelands onto reservations with inadequate space and resources for tribes to support themselves. Decimated by starvation and disease and robbed of their dignity and rights, Native Americans on reservations were given over to the influence of Protestant and Catholic missionaries. Missionaries took Indian children from their families and confined them in boarding schools, barring them from speaking their own languages. Native American religious rituals that expressed and supported traditional life-ways were forbidden. Not until 1978 did a joint resolution of Congressthe American Indian Religious Freedom Resolutionassure that the U.S. government would "protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites."

Thinkers and jurists in the United States and Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries prepared the way for the unique experiment enshrined in the U. S. Constitution and its First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion by preventing any federal or state agency to officially sanction any one religion to the exclusion of others. As the wars of religion made clear, the Reformation itself did not result in religious freedom. In one of the most influential treatises on toleration, Sebastian Castellio (15151563) developed a consistent argument for freedom of conscience, arguing against the execution as a heretic of Michael Servetus by the Genevan magistrates, at Calvin's urging. Castellio said simply and forcefully that "to kill a man is not to defend a doctrine; it is to kill a man." Doctrine, he argued, could be defended by argument, by the pen and not by the sword. But his was a lonely position. Calvin's stance derived from the teachings of Luther and indeed of the medieval church back to St. Augustine, which saw unrepentant heretics as a threat to the spiritual health of the community. Castellio's position began to gain a following only a century later, in a Europe exhausted by religious wars. The Treaty of Westphalia between the Holy Roman Empire and all adjacent nations cracked the age-old armor of intolerance, affirming "Liberty of the Exercise of Religion" (paragraphs xxviii, xlix. A practical necessity to assure peace, religious liberty was not, however, considered a matter of ethical principle.

The uninspired scholasticism of the confessional churches in place by the early seventeenth century bored thinking minds and discouraged individuals looking for spiritual enlightenment. Two movements, both based primarily in France, emerged from this restlessness. The first was a remarkable spiritual resurgence, the "devout movement." The second, gathering strength from the systematic doubt of the otherwise pious Catholic René Descartes (15961650), intellectually prepared the way for the next century's Enlightenment. With Descartes' rational dualism, reason increasingly asserted its independence from theology.

Among Descartes' readers was John Locke (16321704), one of the strongest influences on the development of English and American democracy. Locke, a highly educated Puritan, lived through some of England's most tumultuous years, from the beheading of Charles I in 1649, through Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Commonwealth and the subsequent Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1560, to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which sent James II into exile and brought William and Mary (r. 16891702) to England from Holland. (William and Mary, both Stuarts and grandchildren of Charles I, nonetheless countered the Catholicizing tendencies of Charles II or James II.) Locke therefore had ample material for his reflections on the relationship between religion and state. Initially defending the right of a ruler to require religious obedience, he only later came around to support religious tolerance. By 1689, returning to England after five years of exile in Holland, he published three major works: the classic philosophical treatise An Essay on Human Understanding; Two Treatises on Government, which defended the English Revolution; and A Letter concerning Toleration, written in Holland in 1685. He argued that faith went beyond reason and so was not available to reason's arguments in a conclusive fashion. Faith, therefore, could not be coerced. Because love and good will were marks of a true Christian, tolerance should be the chief mark of the true church. Further, argued Locke, there must be a distinction between the business of religion, concerned with individual salvation, and the public business of the commonwealth. He thus separated the responsibilities and legal obligations of the church and the state.

Locke read not only Descartes, but also Castellio; nonconformists like Hugo Grotius of Holland (15831645) and William Penn (16441718), founder of Pennsylvania; the pantheistic Dutch-Jewish philosopher Barukh Spinoza (16321677); and the French Huguenot and skeptic Pierre Bayle (16471706). Bayle, fleeing persecution in France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, settled in Rotterdam, where he published his influential Dictionnaire historique et critique (Historical and critical dictionary, 1697) and met Locke. Both philosophers, raised as Calvinists, argued that no one should try to coerce the individual conscience. The argument for religious liberty from this time forward became intertwined with the concept of individual rights, especially the right to follow one's own conscience. No longer did shapers of public thought and policy argue that the common good required the removal of unrepentant heretics from society. Rather, wrote Bayle, individuals must be left to God, who gave them a conscience that was "the natural and true light of reason" and a "clear and distinct conception."

From the Enlightenment to Post-Modernity

The works of Locke and Bayle influenced both the American (1776) and the French (1789) revolutions. Some of the American colonies had established churches; all had citizens who had fled state-established churches in Europe. It was not difficult for the leaders of the American Revolution and the framers of the U.S. Constitution (1787) to see that tolerance did not go far enough, as it implied that a state could maintain an established church and merely tolerate, or bear with, other denominations. Disestablishment was therefore their goal, accomplished through the First Amendment to the Constitution (1791), which protected the colonists' most cherished freedoms, beginning with freedom of religion: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In a letter dated January 1, 1802, Thomas Jefferson allayed the fears of a Connecticut minority, the Danbury Baptists, stating that the First Amendment's declaration of religious freedom amounted to "building a wall of separation between Church & State." According to some interpreters, the intent of Congress and of Jefferson's letter was to assure the free exercise of different religions, which could not be inhibited by any contravening law or the establishment of a particular religion: the state must remain neutral. Others understand Jefferson's letter as interpreting the establishment clause of the First Amendment as a protection of citizens from the demands of any organized religion.

In both the First Amendment and Jefferson's letter, the word "religion" included only forms of Christianity or deism. Challenges to this narrow conception of religion began to arise as the United States expanded. On April 30, 1803, Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase, for the sum of 15 million dollars in exchange for more than 800,000 square miles of land. Extending from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, this territory included the port of New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi, and St. Louis, the "gateway to the west" at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. English was a foreign language along the Mississippi, where francophone Haitians and Canadians mingled with various Native Americans and English-speaking Americans from the east.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the spread of Christianity continued, both in the western United States and elsewhere around the world, as missionaries followed conquering flags. The labors of these missionaries, in many cases, resulted in religious beliefs and practices far removed from the conceptions of Christianity they attempted to inculcate. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, many native peoples practice Christianity in tandem with their indigenous religions. In some areas, the two are so mixed that it is difficult to extract particular strands. And in the United States, the influx of people belonging to all the world's religions and the very belated recognition of Native American religions has brought new pressures to bear on the First Amendment and the interpretation of the word "religion."

Throughout history and around the globe, religion has been used and abused as politicians cited scripture to justify war, slavery, and male domination of women. Pacifists, abolitionists, and the Woman Suffrage Movement, however, have likewise used Christianity to advance their causes. Women obtained the vote in most of Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and North America between the end of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth. Some Swiss cantons, however, enfranchised women only in the 1970s, and religious arguments are still used to deny women the right to vote in some parts of the world. The relation between church and state remains relevant in the social and cultural battles of the early twenty-first century In the United States, the controversy over same-sex marriage tests how thoroughly the country remains culturally "Christian" (and what Christianity means to its very diverse practitioners); it also reflects the wide spectrum of views regarding the desirability of both religious influence on state policy and state involvement in religious matters. Organized conservative Christians from various denominations use political means to oppose same-sex marriage, seeking to amend both state and federal constitutions to define marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman. "Secularists," too, continue their own fight against the privileged position of Christianity in their states. Beginning with Constantine, Christian governments awarded churches tax-exempt status and offered their clergy exemption from compulsory military service. Both exemptions have been challenged in the United States as contrary to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. In France, the government's strict secularism (especially, critics argued, vis-à-vis religious displays by non-Christian, and above all Muslim, immigrants) led to a 2004 law forbidding schoolchildren from wearing religious symbols, including Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, large crosses, or Stars of David.

Twentieth-century pundits predicted that science and rational skepticism, the legacies of the Enlightenment, would result in the triumph of secularism and a world in which the pursuit of goods and power was balanced by a political concern for democratic values and human rights, without reference to any religious belief or practice. Except in Europe, however, religion appeared to be gaining in influence at the beginning of the twenty-first century, both culturally and politically. While the European Union argued over whether its constitution should reference Europe's Christian past, its nations have become increasingly diverse in the wake of decolonization and globalization, with respect to both ethnicity and religion. Europe's residents are Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist. Governments based on a Christian European culture struggle to maintain their identity and at the same time to understand that Christian hegemony is a thing of the past. In the United States, too, immigrants demand an equal share in the liberties promised by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Muslims ask to sound the call to prayer in towns that previously heard only church bells, whereas Christians must recognize that, for their neighbors, Sunday is an ordinary day. In the face of globalization and its complex political realities, Christians will have to negotiate their place in the world.

See Also

Anabaptism; Arianism; Liberation Theology; Reformation; Religious Diversity; Secularization.


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Jill Raitt (2005)

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